Daring to Ask the Question
Ben Cameron, head of Theatre Communications Group, the service organization for non-profit theatres and publisher of "American Theatre," asks theatres to ask the tough question in his short essay, "Is it time to stop?".
It's of course a strange query for a man in his position, but that's why I like it. It's not a call for the end of non-profit theatre -- don't be silly. It's a call for theatre companies to ask themselves: why are we doing this?
No, really, ask: why? What's the purpose, what's the mission. Has the mission been fulfilled? Is it time to end this one and start another? As I've noted many times before, regional theatre in America is in a state of transition, as the first generation founders of the regional wave hand over reigns to those who weren't born when the movement started. The question is important, right now.
Here's a quote from Cameron:
"Given our [the regional theatre's] relative youth, many of us are now confronting issues of succession and departure of leaders for the first time. Indeed, a quick snapshot of our membership in 2003 revealed that some 45 percent of us still had at least one founder at the helm. Not surprisingly, funders now increasingly press us about "succession plans," and consultants regularly urge boards to create such plans for the health of the organization.
"Hidden in these discussions is all too often an unexamined assumption that a theatre should continue. As a culture, we tend to prize most highly those organizations that have a long legacy....
"Well, let me be heretical for a moment: Is longevity everything it's cracked up to be...?
"Every succession moment asks that collective to assess, measure and project the future of that central artistic energy. When the generating artist leaves an organization, what will now be left behind? Do we understand not only the implications of our current values for making the choice of successor but that the new arriving artist will inherently bring a different vision? And, frankly, do we have the dedication to increase, in all probability, our dedications of time and energy and resources to this new work?
"Such understanding demands that we ask first those critical questions that are strikingly absent from many plans I've seen. Why do we need to continue to exist? What is the urgent, positive, galvanizing need we will fulfill—a need that will energize others and gather them to us? Is there a social need (e.g., to bring joy into children's lives), an artistic need (to see the creativity of specific artists reach its fullest potential)—a need that can be clearly defined, embraced and framed?"
It's seems so easy a question, doesn't it? But too many non-profits don't seem to ask it, or if they do, the answers are not really compelling. How many regional theatres are simply out there as a "platform" for more work -- not a particular type or style of work, but just more of it?
How many regional theatres have some type of voice that isn't being institutionalized?
I think the regional theatre movement in this country has been an enormous success; for decades, it has brought challenging, exciting theatre to parts of the country that would never have seen such quality otherwise. There are great, completely under-appreciated artists working outside of New York and L.A., and new leaders are emerging.
But that doesn't relieve them of asking the question: who are we, and what are we trying to accomplish?